On Love-sick Winds (Exploring Shakespeare’s Cleopatra)

Cleopatra VII of Egypt may not have been the great physical beauty that she is portrayed in literature and art, but she was certainly highly charismatic, a brilliant strategist and a worthy source of inspiration.

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra shows her as a powerful romantic heroine, driven by the dominating forces of pride and love. She encapsulates all that is good and evil in woman, an archetype of the great dichotomy of the female psyche. She flies instantaneously and effortlessly from petulant fury to biting seduction, and we forgive all her tempers because the strength of her heart is undeniable. She thrusts herself into the role of regal warrior but never loses her feminine vulnerability.

I am drawn to the beauty of the play’s language – not only her own richly woven dialogue but also the sumptuous descriptions of her by other characters. One of the most breathtaking occurs when Enobarbus, loyal companion to Mark Antony, describes his first glimpse of the queen:

“The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description.”

Enobarbus is certain that despite Mark Antony’s political marriage to Caesar’s sister, he will never leave his “Egyptian dish”:

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.”

The ferocity of Cleopatra’s passion for Antony is evident, initially earthy and corporeal:

“Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?  Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse?  O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!”

Then her love is elevated to a purer, transcendental devotion. On Antony’s death, she exclaims:

“There is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.”

“It were for me
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods;
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stol’n our jewel.”

“His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder.”

As Cleopatra herself dies, her beloved, grief-stricken serving maid laments:

“Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparallel’d. Downy windows, close;
And golden Phoebus never be beheld
Of eyes again so royal!”

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About Poetic Beauty

Passionate lover of beauty in all its forms, from the universal to the infinitesimal, with a desire to touch the hearts of all I encounter and share the beauty of life with others My art: www.poeticbeauty.co.uk
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